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How to protect yourself from hackers and improve your cybersecurity

Alvina Wang/BestReviews

Keeping your personal data safe from cybercrime

Cybersecurity is more important than ever for the average individual. A bad actor gaining access to your personal information can lock you out of email accounts, take money out of your bank accounts and even steal your identity. Don’t think it can’t happen to you, because it absolutely can without taking the right steps. Luckily, those steps aren’t too difficult.

Shop this article: Yubico Yubikey 5 NFCApricorn Aegis Secure Key 3NX and Gryphon AC3000 Wi-Fi Router

What is hacking?

Hollywood’s interpretation of hacking usually involves someone sitting in front of one or several computer screens, running esoteric programs and executing complex processes to gain access to secured systems.

Today, most hacking is centered around tricking the user or the online systems into handing over their credentials or allowing for illegitimate password resets. Some also rely on intercepting sensitive data, called a man-in-the-middle attack. With that in mind, some relatively easy steps can protect your personal details from prying eyes.

How to stay safe from hackers

Keep your devices updated

Download and install every security update for your computer and smartphone as soon as they become available. You might need to restart a PC a few times and manually click the “Check for updates” button in Windows update to complete the process. Also, check your smartphone settings occasionally to ensure the latest patches are installed.

Don’t share sensitive personal data

Only input information such as your social security number and banking details on authenticated secure websites. Don’t include sensitive info in emails or text messages. Don't tell anyone your login information, even if you’re talking to a supposed customer service agent. Websites store an encrypted version of your credentials and will likely never directly ask you for your password.

Be careful on public Wi-Fi networks

Any time you connect to a network you don’t personally own, you’re potentially putting yourself at risk. Avoid sharing data wirelessly between devices on public networks, and be especially wary about unsecured Wi-Fi networks you’re unfamiliar with. One method of harvesting data is to start up a seemingly innocent Wi-Fi hotspot but secretly record all transmissions.

Use a VPN

A VPN essentially creates a tunnel between you and a remote server. The VPN software encrypts all the data that goes through this tunnel. At the other end, you’ll also share an IP address with many other users, which makes you considerably harder to identify on the internet.

Enable HTTPS-Only mode in your browser

Your browser encrypts data using the HTTPS protocol and enabling this setting forces the protocol into use at all times. Your browser will alert you to any sites that don’t use HTTPS, which is a clear sign of danger if you think you’re accessing a legitimate site such as your online banking service.

To enable HTTPS-Only mode, open your browser’s settings and type “HTTPS” into the search box. In Chrome (and other Chromium-based browsers, including Edge), you’ll have to navigate to the security menu and select an option resembling “Always use secure connections.” In Firefox, HTTPS-Only mode is activated once you use the search function.

Don’t mess with Windows Security features

Windows Firewall, Windows Defender and Windows Antivirus are all remarkably powerful tools for keeping you safe from attackers. In fact, most experts agree that Windows’ built-in antivirus is the only one most consumers need.

Changing any settings within these programs can make it that much easier for opportunistic hackers to gain control of your PC.

Beware of phishing emails

Ever since email first became widespread, hackers have used scam emails to access users’ accounts. This process, called phishing, involves sending a spoof email that claims there’s an issue with the receiver’s account, and they need to log in to fix it. The email offers a login link that looks legitimate but actually funnels the user’s credentials to a third party. Giving the hacker complete control of accounts inevitably leads to some sort of fraud.

To avoid becoming the victim of a phishing scam, always login to your accounts by navigating to the correct website using your browser and then logging in. Never log in directly from links in emails.

Don’t download unknown email attachments

This is particularly true if you don’t recognize the sender. Even if you do, though, it could still be a spoofed email. If there’s an attachment you don’t recognize, don’t download it. Even if you download but don’t actually run a nefarious attachment, some can still infect your PC or smartphone just by existing on the storage.

Use two-factor authentication

When you log into an account on the website and have to provide a code sent to your email address or phone, that’s two-factor authentication or 2FA. Most hacking involves only one set of compromised credentials, and it’s unlikely that bad actors will have access to multiple of the same person’s accounts (as long as you take the right precautions).

Note that different forms of 2FA offer different levels of security. SMS authentication is the least secure due to the unfortunately relative ease of SIM card spoofing, which can give a hacker access to your text messages. Email authentication is better, as long as your email account isn’t also compromised.

Some services use smartphone app-based key generators, which are highly secure due to the level of encryption on most phones. The most effective form of 2FA is the physical security key, a device that stores your personal encryption key on a USB stick.

While two-factor authentication might seem like a hassle, it’s one of the best ways to keep yourself safe from cybercrime.

Don’t share passwords between sites

You probably don’t want to memorize different passwords for every site you need to log in to. No one blames you. There’s a simple way to do this while also using incredibly secure passwords.

Use a password manager

You log into a password manager using an encrypted master password that you can remember but is hard for others to guess. The password manager assigns a separate, complex password to each new account you create. This way, you only have to keep track of one password for many services.

Each new password is encrypted based on your master password, using a powerful encryption method known as AES-256. On top of that, new passwords are randomly generated, long strings of characters, so there’s essentially zero risk of brute-force hacking being an issue.

Yubico Yubikey 5 NFC

This is the most full-featured physical security available, and it supports the common USB-A connection as well as NFC connectivity for use with smartphones.

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Apricorn Aegis Secure Key 3NX

Available in capacities from 8 to 128 gigabytes, this thumb drive sports a physical keypad for entering your passcode and boasts AES-256 encryption for dependable security.

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Samsung T7 Touch Portable SSD

If you have large amounts of data to keep safe from prying eyes, there’s no better choice than this fingerprint-protected option from a top manufacturer.

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SightPro Laptop Privacy Screen

This premium privacy screen ensures that no one sitting to your left or right can see what you’re doing, and it also cuts down on glare.

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Gryphon AC3000 Wi-Fi Router

More so than most routers, it lets you fine-tune your network security settings, control each client’s access and manage guest networks to keep your home PCs safe from intruders.

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Chris Thomas writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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